Five Reasons Why Instructional Coaching Is Essential in an Elementary School Setting

Tyler Jennings, Lower School Dean of Teaching and Learning

Research is conclusive that the most important factor in children’s learning is the quality of their teachers (Burroughs et al., 2019), and increasingly, substantial bodies of research demonstrate that the most effective professional development is instructional coaching (Garet et al., 2016; Gregory, 2017).

What is instructional coaching? It’s a job-embedded type of professional development in which a trained coach works one-on-one with a teacher over time to plan and teach lessons and assess student learning.

It is not surprising that this type of professional development has been proven to be more effective than others (such as workshops and conferences) (Garet, 2001; TNTP, 2015): It’s the only one that enables the professional developer to deeply know the teacher and students, work with them amidst the action of teaching and learning, and support them consistently.

For the past 20 years, many public school districts have invested intensively in coaching (Galey, 2016). Interestingly, the independent school world has not responded to the research in the same way. It is still fairly rare to find a role focused solely on teacher development in elementary divisions and even more so in secondary ones. Historically, independent schools have created organizational cultures that live up to their name: employees, including teachers, have expected a great deal of independence. But is that what’s best for our students? In Milton’s Lower School, by investing in coaching, we are investing in the power of learning together.

Our investment in coaching is based on the assumption that effective teaching is highly complex, demanding work. So if the most important factor in student learning is teacher quality, what factors into the quality of a teacher, and how does a coach work with a teacher in those zones of growth? Here are our top five:

Intentional care and love.

Profound warmth and kindness are key, but there is also much more that goes into the care and love of students. A student’s belief in their own efficacy is a prerequisite for successful learning. A student’s self-efficacy only becomes possible when a teacher creates an inclusive, equitable, and just environment; continually updates their understanding of their students so that each learner feels known; expects those learners to struggle productively with worthy tasks; and shares meaningful feedback about their successes (Hammond, 2015). That is how a great teacher says, “I see you, I believe in you, and I won’t give up on you,” without needing to say it.

How does an instructional coach support this?

a.   A coach supports teachers to create updated portraits of each learner in their classes, so that teachers can deliver a carefully calibrated level of challenge to each of them.
b.   A coach supports teachers to recognize productive struggle, as well as “errors” as signs of risk-taking, approximation, and growth.
c.   A coach supports teachers as they develop specific feedback for students related to the content.

Content knowledge.

Academic content and curriculum are not at all the same thing. Effective teachers use curriculum as a tool and situate it within a far more vast context of content knowledge. An analogy might be that curriculum is what shows up on a well-designed website, but content knowledge is all of the back-end coding that the average visitor doesn’t see. For instance, a second-grader doesn’t need to know how a missing addend problem relates to algebraic problems later that year, next year, and in middle school, but a teacher needs to know how algebraic thinking works holistically in order to guide that child across a continuum of increasingly sophisticated, interrelated problems. To be responsive to the learners in our classes, to be prepared to follow their lines of inquiry and their individual journey through content learning, we must know how academic concepts work and how they interconnect with and build upon one another.

How does an instructional coach support this?

a.   A trained coach possesses expert knowledge of the immense realm of content underlying academic subjects in elementary school. This means that they also “see” the whole interconnected picture of academic concepts through the grades. A coach supports teachers to envision the horizon toward which they are guiding individual students and the class (Fosnot, 2005).
b.   A coach supports teachers to unearth the academic content that is often implicit in an academic task or problem, and to identify when students are demonstrating an understanding of that deeper content.

Pedagogical content knowledge.

One of the things that our society at large often misunderstands about elementary education is that it involves carefully studied technique. Effective teachers possess a toolkit of many research-based teaching moves that they use in the classroom every day. These strategies support students to engage in effective dialogue with each other, prove their thinking with evidence, use specific language to communicate, visualize their thinking for others to see, generate questions that lead to inquiry for themselves and others, and much more. This is what lifts a student’s understanding to the next level as they progress through the landscape of academic content in school.

How does an instructional coach support this?

a.   During lesson planning, a coach supports teachers to consider and envision how they will teach each part of the lesson. When will they ask an open-ended question versus a closed one? When and how will they record students’ ideas to be visible for all? Where in the lesson will they slow down because it centers on a key concept? When will they expect students to puzzle, and when will the teacher simply give them the information?
b.   During the teaching of a lesson, a coach can step into the lesson at strategic moments to model a teaching move.
c.    In their ongoing work, a coach and teacher work together to apply new teaching moves regularly in the classroom.
d.   Oftentimes, a coach and teacher will decide to videotape a lesson and/or create a transcript of it. This way they can closely study a moment from an actual lesson in order to strengthen specific teaching techniques.

Inclusive, equitable, and just practices.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) cannot live in isolated pockets of the school day; it must infuse all that we do. Sometimes when people hear the phrase “DEIJ in the math classroom,” for instance, they might envision word problems that ask students to consider the inequities embedded in redlining or to understand the unique needs of communities based on their population density. They are not wrong, and these are highly valuable tasks. But our concept of DEIJ in the classroom also has as much to do with what we say and how we say it, how we structure discussions, whose voices are lifted up, and how all of us challenge our own biases in the midst of learning in any subject.

How does an instructional coach support this?

a.   Together, a coach and a teacher can consider the experience of each student in the learning community during a specific lesson or over time. If a student was especially quiet or reluctant, why? What might need to change in the environment to encourage them? Are all of the behaviors that we’re managing necessary to manage, or is disagreement productive?
b.   Using video or transcripts of a lesson inherently reduces bias, which all of us have. Together, a coach and teacher can look at what each student actually said, re-evaluate their assessments when necessary, and learn from the process of checking their own assumptions.

Continuous assessment to inform teaching.

Tests and quizzes (opportunities for students to perform) are distinct from assessments (opportunities for teachers to learn about students’ learning). And summative assessments (reflections of how everyone did this year) are distinct from ongoing, formative assessments (Black & Wiliam, 1998). All have their value, but this blog post is most focused on the latter: formative assessment. When effective teachers plan a lesson, they coordinate multiple layers: Where in the landscape of content does this lesson fit, and what other concepts are related to the one in this lesson? Where are each of my students in relation to this landscape right now? How does the design of this lesson support students’ learning? And what teacher strategies will I need to use in order for each student to achieve their goals? To be able to answer these questions on a regular basis, teachers need to update their assessments of student learning all the time.

How does an instructional coach support this?

a.   In addition to examining the data from periodic benchmark assessments, a coach can support teachers to closely examine artifacts of student learning on a regular basis. These might include written or visual work, collaborative group posters, and transcripts of class discussions.
b.   A coach supports teachers to translate their observations of student artifacts into plans for teaching. Together they answer the questions: If this is a goal for this student’s learning right now, how will I plan an activity that brings them into contact with that goal, what support will I give them, and how will I know when they understand it?


Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5:1, 7-74.

Burroughs N. et al. (2019). A Review of the Literature on Teacher Effectiveness and Student Outcomes. In: Teaching for Excellence and Equity. IEA Research for Education (A Series of In-depth Analyses Based on Data of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA)), vol 6.

Fosnot, CT. (2005). Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (2nd ed). Teachers College Press.

Galey, Sarah (2016) “The Evolving Role of Instructional Coaches in U.S. Policy Contexts,” The William & Mary Educational Review: Vol. 4 : Iss. 2 , Article 11.

Garet, et al. (2001). What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers. American Educational Research Journal, Winter, 2001, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter, 2001), pp. 915-945.

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., Garrett, R., Yang, R., & Borman, G. D. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Gregory, A. et al. (2017). Closing the racial discipline gap in classrooms by changing teacher practice. School Psych Review, 2016 Jun; 45(2): 171–191.

Hammond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin Press.

TNTP. (2015). The mirage: Confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development. Retrieved from: